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Native protesters demonstrate at the Enbridge headquarters in Vancouver on Dec. 2, 2010.

simon hayter The Globe and Mail

As the federal government embarks on a lengthy set of public hearings into Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway project Tuesday, it faces one particularly gruelling task: listening.

Between now and next April, the three-member panel (an energy lawyer, an environmental consultant and a geologist) reviewing the controversial pipeline will travel to dozens of towns and cities across Alberta and British Columbia, some accessible only by boat or plane, some more than 500 kilometres from the pipeline's planned route.

During that time, it will hear from 53 official intervenors, first nations groups, environmental organizations, independent researchers and oil companies that have registered to deliver testimony. Their words alone will take months to hear.

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But perhaps the most daunting task will be to take input from the more than 4,000 people who have asked to provide oral comments.

The panel has decided to give each person 10 minutes to speak – considerably more than the three minutes set aside for people delivering similar statements at the U.S. State Department's hearings into the Keystone XL pipeline.

As a result, the Canadian panel stands to hear over 600 hours of opinion, enough to fill 83 eight-hour working days. It expects to do that between late March and July of this year.

A decision is expected at the end of 2013. By that time, the review panel, which was set up in late January, 2010, will have spent some three years on the project.

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